Queen, The: Helen Mirren

How do you play a living Monarch, Britain's Queen Elizabeth, the both revered and reviled Royal for the past half a century

When it came to casting “The Queen,” the challenges were obvious. The films roles were made up entirely of real, living people with well-established personas, not to mention legacies to protect. The trouble is that we already think we know these characters so well and theyre so familiar, so the cast had to find a kind of collective line to ride in being human without being ridiculous, says director Stephen Frears. It wasnt something that we talked about so much, but it was taken into account in choosing the actors.

Perhaps no role would pose as many potential pitfalls as that of Queen Elizabeth herself, a woman who, as a largely ceremonial yet protected symbol of a once imperial England, has never been depicted so intimately or humanly on the screen. Having reigned for more than half a century as Queen, she seemed an almost impenetrable character.

But producer Andy Harries had someone in mind who he thought could pull it off. He had just overseen production on the award-winning television series Prime Suspect starring Helen Mirren, and she struck him as having not only the right appearance but also the talent and courage to take on the role. Helen Mirren's the Queen of British drama and she looks a bit like the Queen. So I thought what a good idea, Helen as the Queen, he recalls.

For Helen Mirren, who has created a vast array of memorable characters on stage, screen and television, it was an irresistible offer. I thought The Deal was a fantastic piece of work so I knew I would be in very good hands, says the actress. This story is delicate material — dangerous material in a way — so you have to be confident that the people you are working with have the intelligence and ability to put a story like this on the screen without a cheap betrayal of the subject.

Still Mirren was acutely aware that she was stepping into a potential minefield by playing a person as famous, and mysterious, as the present monarch. Given the iconic status of the Queen, I was terrified. I was probably more nervous about this role than almost any other role Ive ever done, she admits. To set herself at ease in the role, Mirren worked from the outside in, starting with the Queens uniquely upper-crust speech patterns and then getting closer to her essence as a mother, grandmother and national figurehead.

My work with dialogue coach Penny Dyer was invaluable. She is quite extraordinary in her understanding of voice, Mirren says. Then I found a thought that relaxed me — which was to think of myself as a portrait painter. What good portraitists do is to bring their own perception of their subject, and then reproduce that person through their own personality, their own psychology, and thus, every portrait is different.

All along, she carefully attempted to tread that razor-thin line between giving a truly human portrayal and tipping over into caricature. You dont want the audience caught up in your brilliant impersonation, she explains. You want them to believe who you are and go on your journey with you in an imaginative way. If the impersonation is too brilliant it can mean the truth is too intrusive; sometimes you have to step back from the truth, because in theatrical drama it can jar the audience out of their imaginative engagement with what you are doing.

Stephen Frears was quite pleased with Helen Mirrens humanistic and layered approach. Im not sure Helen would have let us get away with any cheap shots, he remarks.

To get a better understand of the Queens inner struggles, Mirren did do a lot of research. Of course you also have to get certain things right, the hair, the hands, the stance, the walk, the voice, she comments. I had photographs of the Queen in my trailer and watched tapes all the time. It was a bit intimidating, because each time I watched them I would feel I was failing her, failing the inner person and you are constantly trying to get to the inner person.

“There was one piece of early film, a simple little thing of about one minute of Elizabeth at about 12, getting out of a car and walking forward to shake someone's hand. I found it very touching. I watched it over and over. The more I studied her, the more extraordinary she became, as a person. She's not like Tony Blair, whos so forward. Shes back within herself, but its not a neurotic place or a confused place, its a very steady place, quite a confident place. Its a place of incredible self-discipline — and then she steadily comes out from that point and that's the person I was constantly trying to fight my way towards.

It was also essential to Helen Mirren to create a real sense of the Royals as a family. So she gathered all the actors playing the various family members in the film — James Cromwell who would play Prince Philip, Alex Jennings who would play Prince Charles and Sylvia Syms who would play the Queen Mother at her house so that we got used to the sound of each others voices as family and it wouldnt feel like being with a whole group of people talking in funny voices.

Working with Stephen Frears was another great pleasure for Mirren on “The Queen.” Stephen directs like a conductor, she says of Frears. Its as if hes hearing a tune of the film in his head and hes conducting the performance from that.”

Ultimately, for Mirren, “the very concept of treating the Queen like a woman rather than like a cut-out of a sovereign might itself be shocking.